Judge Orders New Trial for 'Serial' Subject, but Will Adnan Syed Actually Stand Trial Again?

The first season of the podcast Serial focused on Adnan Syed, a man convicted of the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, high school senior Hae Min Lee. Syed maintained his innocence throughout the trial, but was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison. His conviction was based largely on two key pieces of evidence: the testimony of Jay Wilds, a friend of Syed who says he helped the man bury Lee's body, and cell phone records placing him near the burial site at the time Wilds said he helped bury Lee.

Syed had previously appealed his conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel, but his appeal was rejected by Judge Martin P. Welch.

However, during his attorneys' investigation for a different podcast, Undisclosed, new evidence was discovered: a fax cover sheet from AT&T that stated cell phone records the prosecution used to place Syed at the scene of the burial could not be considered reliable. Somehow, that cover sheet never made it to the defense team or to the radio frequency expert who testified for the prosecution at Syed's trial. When subsequently shown the cover sheet, the prosecution expert said his testimony would have been much different had he seen the information about unreliability prior to the trial.

Syed's attorneys appealed again based on the discovery of new evidence, and this time, Judge Welch acknowledged that Syed's initial trial attorney should have cross-examined the radio frequency expert about the reliability of cell phone data. Welch overturned Syed's conviction and ordered a new trial.

However, just because the judge has ordered a new trial does not mean that Syed, who is still charged with first degree murder, will get a new trial.

First, the prosecution plans to appeal the judge's ruling. If Judge Welch is overruled in granting a new trial, the conviction stands, and Syed remains in prison for life.

If the judge's decision is affirmed, it still does not mean Syed will necessarily get a new trial. The prosecution will have three options if they lose their appeal:

  1. The prosecution takes Syed back to trial, but without the main piece of evidence used to convict him. In this scenario, they would rely primarily on the testimony of Wilds, whose testimony about what happened that night, including the timeline of when the burial occurred, has changed several times. It looks as if a new trial could be a losing proposition for the prosecution. Also, the defense is likely to call Asia McClain Chapman to testify. Chapman says she was with Syed in the library at the time Lee went missing. The defense failed to call her as an alibi witness in the first trial, which Syed presented as a defense error in his first appeal.
  2. The prosecution negotiates a plea deal with Syed. If Syed feels a second conviction is likely at trial, he could plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence than the life plus 30 he got the first time around.
  3. The prosecution dismisses the charges against Syed. If the prosecution has insufficient evidence to convict, and if Syed refuses to plead, prosecutors may have no choice but to dismiss the murder charges.

Because his case inspired two podcasts, Serial and Undisclosed, Syed's face has captured public attention. The Innocence Project is also investigating Syed's case, and through DNA evidence, has uncovered another suspect in the killing: Ronald Lee Moore. Moore was released from prison a few days before Lee's murder and is connected to another 1999 murder. The Innocence Project is requesting DNA testing on previously untested evidence from Lee's murder. If Moore is discovered to be Lee's killer, it will bring closure, but no justice, for her family--the man killed himself in 2012.

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